Q&A: Does everyone in Iceland speak English?

How to survive a 5 am arrival in Reykjavík (like a boss) #iceland #reykjavik #travel

English has become the chosen language of travel. No matter where you go, and who you meet, you will most often have to use your English at some point while traveling. Sometimes it’s because you don’t speak the native language, sometimes it’s  because you meet people from all over the world and for an even playing field you result to group discussions in English so everyone understands. It’s a language that is taught as a second language in schools around the world and at least here in Europe it has become unusual to find young people that don’t have at least a basic command of the English language. Whether this is a good thing or bad thing is a whole different discussion but I think we can mostly agree that this is the way it is.

Because of this it’s understandable that people want to know before they travel somewhere whether the locals speak this international language of travel. And people that travel to Iceland are no different.

Question: Does everyone in Iceland speak English?

I can’t say whether EVERYONE in Iceland speaks English but I would say that the majority of Icelandic people speak it fairly well. In the service industry I would go as far as saying that probably 98% speak English well enough to make themselves understandable. So not finding anyone to speak English to you in Iceland is not something you should worry about. In fact, many Icelanders speak more than one and often more than two foreign languages. Of course not everyone but quite a few.

I get a lot of questions from my guests about the fluency of Icelanders when speaking English and it seems to surprise them how well we speak it. I don’t know if that’s because they weren’t expecting that we spoke any English at all or whether they are just genuinely impressed with our proficiency.

They often wonder whether the reason is the school system and then some even conclude that we must be bilingual or that we speak English to one another in our homes. We don’t. We have our own language, Icelandic, and that what we use in our everyday lives when you guys are not involved and around. But I believe these ponderings warrant a bonus question for today’s Quick Q&A.

Bonus Question: Why do Icelanders speak English so well?

Before we go any further I have to mention that I have heard my expat buddies and acquaintances from English speaking countries make fun of the fact how Icelandic people in general overestimate how good their English actually is. I have never heard anyone elaborate on that though  and I’m not entirely sure whether they actually think our English is bad or whether they’re just poking fun at the fact that we always think we’re the best at everything. I think it’s good to remember though, in all of this, that for most Icelandic people English is their second language and any opinions on whether it’s good or not should take that into consideration.

I cannot speak on behalf of everyone but I think for me and those around me the school system is not the reason my English is at the level that it is at. I started learning English at school when I was 12 (if I remember correctly) and it was one of those subjects I always got top grades in without any effort. English just made sense to me somehow.

I already knew quite a lot English when I started taking lessons at school and although I’m sure my education helped me, like when it comes to grammar and specific vocabulary, I am also quite certain it was not the deciding factor. I read a lot as a kid and because there are only so many books published in Icelandic for children and teenagers I ran out of interesting books to read very quickly. Chick-lit as a genre also didn’t exist in Icelandic so I turned to books in English. I’m not even going to tell you how often I read Pride and Prejudice.

I’m seeing the exact same thing happen with the princess. She started reading books intended for grown ups in English a while ago (she’s 13) and now she’s going through a big Harry Potter phase and she chooses to read the books in English because that’s the original language they were written in.

Another thing that influenced me was TV. My best friend had satellite TV and we would watch the DJ Kat Show on Sky One religiously plus that most of the cartoons on Icelandic TV back then were not dubbed but had subtitles. Although that has changed now, at least when it comes to children’s TV, TV in Iceland is still not dubbed like they do in many countries around us. The Icelandic market is also very small so it’s very expensive to produce quality TV in Icelandic and because of that most of our TV is in English with Icelandic subtitles. Now we also have Netflix in Iceland and Icelandic subtitles aren’t even an option so if you are watching something in Spanish or German or something you’ll watch that with English subtitles.

My friend, that I mentioned before, and I also both had fathers that were very early to adopt computers and the internet and if we wanted to use these wondrous things we would simply just have to learn English. A lot of the computer games back then were text based so you had to write commands to get the characters to do stuff. I didn’t know what the word a condom meant but with a help of a dictionary I was able to buy one on Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. I don’t know if our parents knew we were playing that game actually. Today it’s Snapchat and Musical.ly and YouTube. If there’s a will to use these things there’s a way.

So I guess what I’m getting at is the fact that we as Icelanders, much like the rest of the world but maybe even more so because of our size as a nation, are exposed to English in our everyday lives more than you would probably imagine. And I don’t think you could resist learning it even if you wanted to. And, because there’s not a lot of people in the world that speak Icelandic we are forced to apply ourselves to learn other languages to communicate with the rest of the world.

I never sat down and made a plan for how I was going to improve my English – it just happened. At least with the spoken English. With written English I consciously made a decision to write more in English for practice until it came more naturally to me. I know I don’t write it or speak it like a native speaker, and I definitely have my moments where I struggle with pronunciation or finding the exact word I am looking for, but when I speak English today I’m not translating from Icelandic – it comes from a different place. And if I had to write something to express my innermost thoughts and feelings I’m not sure I would necessarily choose Icelandic to do so. Or at the very least I’d be equally comfortable with doing it in English.

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24 thoughts on “Q&A: Does everyone in Iceland speak English?”

  1. Pete Hobley says:

    I found most Icelanders speak better, clearer English than me! You put us all to shame!

  2. Deanna says:

    Having just returned from two weeks in southern Iceland, from Snaefellsnes Peninsula going as far up the east coast to Eastrahorn, I can say I never met an Icelandic person who did not speak English very well and who was not full of smiles when I tried to respond with the few Icelandic words I had been practicing. They speak English so easily it is indeed hard to remember that it is not their first language. It makes travel easy when there is a common language, but it is also enriching of relationships on occasions when one tries to communicate across a language barrier. The main thing, is to enjoy the people as we travel in their land and be thankful for the chance to chat with them.

  3. Erika says:

    I was very impressed with everyone we met. And as we think about a way to move there, I won’t even consider it unless I can become decently proficient in Icelandic. It wouldn’t be very fair of me to move to a country and not be able to speak some of their language. It will also be a requirement of my profession (accounting). I’ve never learned another language, so it’s daunting to think of being able to speak Icelandic, but can be so rewarding if I can make it happen!

  4. Annie says:

    I think your written English is brilliant. Better in fact than many English people I know!! I remember playing Leisure Suit Larry. You’ve brought back some memories there!!?

  5. Ryan says:

    I love that, half a world away, we were both sneaking onto the computer to play Leisure Suit Larry. Those “age-verification” trivia questions must have been tough, especially for Icelandic kids!

    1. mm Auður says:

      If I remember correctly we had some tricks to get around them. And before we did – I just guessed and remembered when we got it right for next time 🙂

  6. Tom says:

    I don’t want to take anything away from the Icelanders’ amazing proficiency in English, which puts us Anglophones to shame. But my God, it must have been liberating for you, as a 12 year old, to learn that there are just two ways, not 16, to say “cat”; that there is just one way to say an adjective, not 16 (and counting); that the most horrifyingly difficult irregular verb is “to be” (am, are, is, was, were); that your conversation doesn’t come to a grinding halt when you can’t remember whether that proposition takes the dative of the accusative; or that in English you don’t have to roll 3 R’s in the space of a millisecond (voreldrar) ?
    Keep up the good work!

  7. Chris says:

    Your written English is VERY good. And Leisure Suit Larry: I might have gone the rest of my life without thinking of that game!

  8. Daniel Roberts says:

    Hello Auður,

    I wonder If I could ask for a little help, I’m visiting Reykjavik in October, I’m English born and bred so needless to say my Icelandic isn’t great (doesn’t exist) I often find it very awkward when traveling when trying to instigate a conversation by asking if someone speaks English in English ? when I visited Norway I prepared “hello, I’m sorry I don’t speak Norwegian, do you speak English”? In Norwegian And was very pleased with myself, until I was told that everyone speaks English and I should actually say “hello, I’m sorry I don’t speak Norwegian, it is ok if we speak in English”? Would this be a similar thing to do in Iceland? While everyone may well speak excellent English I’d hate to come across as rude or presumptuous.

    Many thanks in advance, keep up the great work ?

    1. mm Auður says:

      You can definitely address people in English and if you want to be polite you can ask them whether it’s OK to speak English. If you ask an Icelander if they speak English they probably won’t say anything but on the inside they might be thinking: “why wouldn’t I, do I look stupid?” 🙂

      1. Daniel says:

        Well obviously we had an amazing time in Reykjavik ?
        Everyone was more than friendly enough and happy to speak English when my icelandic ran out (hello, thank you & bye) ?
        What an amazing country you live in, I’m very jealous! What id give for one more hot dog & pint of Viking ???

      2. Jac says:

        Can you translate this sentence to Icelandic: “I’m sorry I don’t speak Icelandic, can we speak in English”? I’m visiting in April. Thanks! (I used Google translator but unsure if it’s correct: “Halló Fyrirgefðu ég tala ekki íslensku. getum við talað á ensku?”)

        1. mm Auður says:

          You should listen to my podcast: http://www.iheartreykjavik.net/category/learn-icelandic/

          One of the first ones covers this.

  9. ghukill says:

    I really dig the site. I came for some information about where and how Icelanders learn English, I and I left with a good chuckle that Icelanders were also playing Leisure Suit Larry at some point, talk about making this Blue Marble of a planet seem small. Thanks for a great resource! It’s been a boon while visiting this grand and wonderful place.

    1. mm Auður says:

      Yes, I wasn’t quite sure whether I should admit to this fact 🙂 I also LOVED and played Day of the Tentacle. Best game ever.

      1. ghukill says:

        Day of the Tentacle, _duly_ noted. Sounds fantastic. I betting if you were to post about the early days of Internet here in Iceland, a lot of folks around the world interested in those Internet “frontier times” — myself included — would be fascinated by such a read. There is lots of literature and posts about early American Internet culture (and computer for that matter), always excited when I can find firsthand accounts from other parts of the world.

  10. Stefan says:

    I have fallen in love with this blog. I am from Cape Town South Africa (widely considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world – and believe me it is) but this blog just makes me want to pack up my bags and move. I am in IT, I wonder how difficult it would be for me to get a job there since I have an EU passport.

  11. Anna says:

    Having had a go at learning basic Icelandic, my conclusion is that because Icelandic grammar is so complicated, probably any second or third language the Icelandic try to learn will seem easy, including English 😉

  12. Dori says:

    Oh my, DJ Kat! Thanks for this little throwback, I grew up to this show too! He might even have been my first crush, haha.

  13. Ricky says:

    The only people I met who didn’t speak English were two older public bus drivers. They mimed what time we’d be getting back on the bus when I sat there like “wait, everybody got off?” lol

  14. Naa says:

    I have a question that sort of goes against this post hehe. Next year, there will be a Polyglot conference in Reykjavik. I plan to attend, but one of the traditions of the Polyglot conference is to attempt to learn the native language of the country hosting the event that year. So, I have 1 year to get decent in Icelandic. I would love to reach at minimum a conversational level. My question is: Will I go through all this trouble to learn conversational Icelandic only to arrive and have everyone only speak English to me, even when I try to speak Icelandic to them? How patient are the natives when foreigners/tourists try to speak to them in their language (I mean more than just a “Hello”, “Please”, and “Thank you”)? Thanks!

    1. mm Auður says:

      If you ask people to speak Icelandic with you because you want to practice it most people would help you. If you are in a line, getting served at a coffee place for example, and there are 30 people behind you, they might not have the same patience 🙂

      You will also discover that much of the waiting staff in Reykjavík doesn’t actually speak Icelandic.

  15. Anna says:

    You can learn a surprising amount of Icelandic using the free courses on icelandiconline.is/ I got through the survival course in a few weeks. I guess you could do everything on there in a few months, or in any case less than a year.

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